Drones will transform our cities – and we’re totally unprepared for the consequences

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We'll need new solutions to the potential problem of drones going off course (Source: Getty)

Drones are everywhere – whether that’s delivering Domino’s pizzas in New Zealand or dancing behind Lady Gaga at the US Super Bowl. With the news that Amazon’s new drone delivery plan includes “package parachutes”, considering how drones will impact our cities in the future is an issue that London must address now.

No longer limited to the military, the potential of drones is considerable. Being used to speedily deliver goods across cityscapes is the most obvious and immediate use case.

A decade or so from now, fleets of drones will zoom across our cities. Some will be delivering medicines and vaccines to hospitals (already the case in Germany), while others will drop off sensitive contract documents for busy City workers. Drones will be performing assessments for Network Rail following winter storms, monitoring air pollution for the GLA, delivering live broadcasts for the BBC or even carrying people as they go about their business.

Technical and engineering questions aside, it’s also causing a bit of a headache for policy-makers.

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The Civil Aviation Authority’s Dronecode, which limits where and how drones can fly, was a welcome start to the types of conversations we need to have, but is only the tip of the iceberg. Like any other aircraft, drones must always be flown in a safe manner, so will they be restricted to well-defined routes or allowed to roam free?

Will some people be able to pay for premium access – faster, more direct routes, especially when high-priority socially useful functions like delivering organs are in the balance? Will essential parts of the infrastructure like landing pads be open to anyone, as roads are, and how will the public pay for them?

There are promising economic outlooks, as drone-powered operations will spin off new support services that don’t exist yet. Drone production, operation and related business operations will create new jobs – but also may push lorry drivers out of work. And any new transport service will come with new taxes, fees and licensing requirements, which have not yet been worked out.

Transport by drone raises issues of data control as well. Regulators and operators will need to use advanced telecommunications to coordinate flight paths and provide records in the case of failures. We will need to determine if and how regulators can remotely manipulate a drone’s movements if it is hacked or loses control – or strays into commercial flight paths, as recently occurred at Heathrow. Transport for London encourages software developers to use its open transport data to create new tools and better understand mobility patterns and bottlenecks; the potential for crunching data provided by drone movement is immense.

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But most importantly, who will make these decisions? How will local and central governments divide their roles with existing regulators like the Civil Aviation Authority and entities like the EU?

By 2030 drones will be a routine part of the urban landscape. A century ago the regulation of cars moved forward haphazardly, mainly thanks to problems like crashes and pollution. More recently other industries have been more astute, pre-empting possible problems and opening themselves up to public argument about the technology they adopt.

We need to take a similar collaborative approach to addressing the big societal and technical challenges ahead. Ultimately, integrating technologies like drones into the London cityscape will be as much about urban planning as it is about technological design.